Ontogenesis of goal-directed behavior: anatomo-functional considerations.
Recent neuroanatomical and neurophysiological studies in man have revealed ontogenetic events which coincide with broadly defined phases of behavioral and cognitive development. During the early fetal period, early produced neurons make initial synapses which form the basis for the earliest electrical activity of the human brain. The overall immaturity of neuronal connections, in particularly in cortical areas, correlates with the absence of any behavioral pattern or goal-directed movements. In the late fetus and preterm infant, transient accumulation of major afferent pathways, the presence of transient layers (subplate zone) and transient pattern of transmitter-related organization form the neurological basis of cortical electric responses as well as transient behavioral states and sleep patterns. Parallel to the profound structural and chemical reorganization of the human cerebrum during the first 6 postnatal months there is a disappearance of transient behavioral and motor patterns. The previously close spatio-temporal correlation between these events becomes progressively looser. The overproduction of circuitry elements during the subsequent period peaks in associative cortex between 1 and 2 years of age, corresponding to the emergence of skilled actions and cognitive functions. After the elimination of some circuitry elements after the second year of life, the prolonged maturation of goal-directed behavior and the protracted emergence of different cognitive functions correlates with the development plateau of synapse production which can be seen up to 16 years of age. Parallel to the prolonged maturation of postsynaptic elements, there are well defined maturational changes in the chemical properties of associative pyramidal neurons of cortical layer III. These findings correspond to the prolonged maturation of movement-related brain macropotentials as well as other cognition-related potentials, where the last prominent changes were seen after 10 years of age. Although the coincidence of the developmental events does not necessarily mean a causal relationship, the combination of structural and physiological data opens new vistas for the further investigation of the neurobiological basis of goal-directed movement and cognitive behavior.